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The many masks of modern art

I cannot resist a painting of a fanciful beast or bird, especially if it is well and imaginatively done, is placed within a fantastic setting, and has an air of mystery about it.

When I spot such a work, my usual critical standards fly out the window, and I respond to it on a very simple level. My primary concern is that it have a kind of logic to it, regardless of how wildly fantastic or imagined the creature may be.

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If there are multiple wings, clusters of feet or legs, or horns four feet long, some sort of imaginative and structural sense must be insured. Most important the creature, no matter how fantastic, must have a clear identity and personality all its own.

Although the creation of such imagined and fanciful creatures has been widespread during this century, we have not, by and large, paid serious critical attention to the creatures whose lives and actions have been immemorially linked with man.

There have always been artists, going back as far as the Assyrians and Egyptians, who have recorded the marvel of animals, but only a few modern artists have attempted to touch on their essence. In the fanciful works of Marc, Klee, Miro, Calder, Chagall, Brauner, in the strange collage concoctions of Max Ernst, the disturbing images of Francis Bacon, and the haunting birds and small animals of Morris Graves, we have found remarkable insights. We have also been enchanted by some of Darrel Austin's lions and tigers, and by Dahlov Ipcar's beguiling fantasies; impressed with what Picasso could do with bulls, and Tamayo with dogs. But we have not, in this century, taken imaginative glimpses of animals and birds very seriously. And I, quite frankly, am not surprised.

The reason is simple. It is much too easy for cuteness and whimsy to creep into such works, or for them to exist primarily as excuses for displays of technical virtuosity. Pictures of cats and dogs seem to suffer most from this tendency toward cuteness, although I have seen paintings of horses that would have to be described as cute -- and I once knew a painter who did rather whimsical ''portraits'' of favorite bulls for the farmers of the Wisconsin-Minnesota region.

Animal portraiture, however, is not as easy as it seems. Most owners of animals, having named and then helped to create their ''personalities,'' see them in a slightly different light than the one asked to do their portraits. The result can be -- and often is -- disastrous, with the owner refusing to pay the artist for what strikes him or her as a totally inadequate picture of ''Annabelle'' or ''Abernathy.''

Mimi Vang Olsen, who paints people's animals, as well as other phenomena, is a remarkable exception. Her secret is that she treats each beast as a true individual -- and with respect. She also has the uncanny knack of seeing the animal through its owner's eyes in all the disparate and intimate relationships which often move with a subtlety transcending the relationships among human beings. She manages, in other words, not only to capture the physical characteristics of dog, cat, hamster, or horse, but their unique and specific individualities as well. The result is an experience that is never a stiff and accurate rendering of a four-footed; it is a warm and even fanciful portrait of a family member.

Animals and birds--and even fish--have fared better with contemporary printmakers and draftsmen than with painters, probably because the graphic vision lends itself better to the depiction of fanciful creatures than does a painterly or coloristic one. At any rate, I have, over the years, seen some excellent and charming etchings, engravings, lithographs, and drawings by Leonard Baskin, Wanda Gag, Adolf Dehn, Joseph Hecht, and Wayne Thiebaud--to say nothing of Picasso's extraordinary illustrations for Buffon's Histoire Naturelle and Henry Moore's marvelous drawings of sheep. And then, just this year, Alan Robinson came out with a superb etching of an armadillo.

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What seems to be largely missing, and what I would most particularly like to see engage some of our younger artists, is the kind of animal drawing from life that resulted in Durer's great watercolor of the ''Young Hare,'' Pisanello's sketches of animal and bird life, Degas' remarkable studies of horses, and Wyeth's beautiful watercolors and drawings of walking and flying creatures, most especially his superb gouache and ink ''Crows'' of 1944.

One reason, I suspect, that there is so little good animal drawing today is because it is extremely difficult; animals, after all, simply refuse to pose. And another is that the camera has made the recording of animal forms and movements so easy. Why labor to understand an animal's anatomy, and then spend all that time trying to capture on paper something as frisky and nervous as a horse or a rabbit, when one or two clicks of the camera will produce an image easily transferable to canvas or clay?

The answer is obvious to anyone who has seen the coldly detached and photographically sterile paintings and sculptures that have resulted from such an attitude, and has compared them with the paintings created by artists who knew how to portray animals as ''internally' and dynamically as they did humans. The animals of Rubens, Degas, Lautrec, and Picasso are alive and vital because those artists studied and understood what they were and did as animals and didn't merely transcribe photographic images of them, square inch by square inch , onto a canvas.

When it comes to the paintings of fanciful creatures, however, it makes very little difference what sources are used as long as they are imaginatively transcribed into whatever sort of creature the artist has in mind.

Igor Galanin is one contemporary painter who has the knack of creating wonderfully mysterious and pleasantly decorative images of fanciful animals that yet seem very close in spirit and form to the actual animals from which they were derived. His lions, zebras, giraffes, elephants, and rhinos, sit, stand, or roam about a human world with which they have no connection except through the imagination of the artist. And yet they seem to belong, seem even to be enjoying themselves.

I'm particularly intrigued by those paintings in which Galanin's animals are seen against complex and precisely detailed architectural settings--even though that relationship makes little logical sense. What, for instance, is that elongated and rather resigned-looking lion doing in front of a huge palace in ''Nevsky Prospect''? And why is that pompous hippopotamus with the tiny white owl on its head wading so unconcernedly before the ''Anichkov Palace''? These and similar questions about Galanin's animals and their activities (for instance: can rhinos really walk a tightrope?) will remain forever unanswered.

But then, this is a very real part of these paintings' charm. They were not, after all, intended to make a great deal of logical sense, only to delight, amuse, intrigue, and enchant. And neither were they intended to reflect a concern for the great formal or theoretical questions of the day. They are too happy and carefree for that--although they do have just enough melancholy to make them look ''modern,'' and just enough enigma to make them feel at home in the age that produced Rousseau's ''The Sleeping Gypsy'' and the strange and fantastic goings-on in the canvases of de Chirico, Ernst, Dali, and Magritte.

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